Thursday, December 29, 2011

Roald Dahl's The Three Little Pigs

"If I can't blow it down," Wolf said,
I'll have to blow it up instead.
I'll come back in the dead of night
And blow it up with dynamite!"
Pig cried, "You brute! I might have known!"
Then, picking up the telephone,
He dialed as quickly as he could
The number of red Riding Hood.

"Hello," she said. "Who's speaking? Who?
Oh, hello, Piggy, how d'you do?"
Pig cried, "I need your help, Miss Hood!
Oh help me, please! D'you think you could?"
"I'll try of course," Miss Hood replied.
"What's on your mind...?" "A Wolf!" Pig cried.
"I know you've dealt with wolves before,
And now I've got one at my door!"

"My darling Pig," she said, "my sweet,
That's something really up my street.
I've just begun to wash my hair.
But when it's dry, I'll be right there."

-This is just an exerpt from Roald Dahl's "The Three Little Pigs"-the full poem can be read at AllPoetry. Such a natural thing to combine The Three Little Pigs with Little Red Riding Hood, when you think about it. As you might expect with Dahl, the retelling is humorous as well as a bit morbid.

Image by Leonard Leslie Brooke

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Greetings from a Fairy to a Child

Lady, dear, if Fairies may
For a moment lay aside
Cunning tricks and elfish play,
Tis at happy Christmas-tide.

We have heard the children say--
Gentle children, whom we love--
Long ago on Christmas Day,
Came a message from above.

Still, as Christmas-tide comes round,
They remember it again--
Echo still the joyful sound
"Peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Yet the hearts must childlike be
Where such heavenly guests abide;
Unto children, in their glee,
All the year is Christmas-tide!

Thus, forgetting tricks and play
For a moment, Lady dear,
We would wish you, if we may,
Merry Christmas, glad New Year

Lewis Carroll

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dumas' Nutcracker

Image from here

Last year I did a post on the original E.T.A. Hoffman story that inspired the ballet The Nutcracker. This year I read the Dumas version, which I knew was based on the Hoffman, but excpected to see an evolution from the Hoffman to the Dumas to the ballet. I was surprised by how similar Dumas' version was to Hoffman's, and even wondered why he bothered to rewrite it in the first place if he wasn't going to change anything significant. This site says it was because Hoffman's tale was considered to morbid for kids so Dumas made it more family friendly. Wikipedia calls the Dumas story a "somewhat watered-down revision." Surlalune featured a book that includes both versions plus an introduction by Jack Zipes, which I would love to read, but unfortunately isn't available to me at the moment.

Westside Ballet School

I don't see Dumas' version as being any different in child-friendliness or morbidness, because the plot is the same, other than he did pare down some of the descriptions and extra details. The only interesting addition I found in Dumas was an explanation of how Drosselmeier lost his eye on his travels, attempting to find the nut Krakatuk, because Drosselmeier almost always has an eye patch in the ballet versions.

Pennsylvania Ballet

Here is the description of Marie finding the Nutcracker, first from Hoffman:

"Objection, considerable objection, might, perhaps, have been taken to him on the score of his figure, for his body was rather too tall and stout for his legs, which were short and slight; moreover, his head was a good deal too large. But much of this was atoned for by the elegance of his costume, which showed him to be a person of taste and cultivation. He had on a very pretty violet hussar's jacket, knobs and braid all over, pantaloons of the same, and the loveliest little boots ever seen even on a hussar officer-fitting his little legs just as if they had been painted on them. It was funny, certainly, that dressed in this style as he was he had a little, rather absurd, short cloak on his shoulders, which looked almost as if it were made of wood, and on his head a cap like a miner's. But Marie remembered that Godpapa Drosselmeier often appeared in a terribly ugly morning jacket, and with a frightful-looking cap on his head, and yet was a very very darling godpapa."

Now from Dumas:

"His body was too long and big for the miserable little thin legs which supported it, and his head was so enormous that it was all out of proportion to the rest. He wore a braided frock-coat of violet-coloured velvet, all frogged and covered with buttons, and trousers of the same material, as well as shiny boots. But there were two things which seemed strange compared with the rest of his dress-one was an ugly narrow cloak made of wood which hung down rather like a pigtail from the nape of his neck to the middle of his back, and the other was a wretched little cap, such as some mountaineers wear, upon his head. But Marie, when she saw these two oddities which seemed so out of keeping with the rest of his dress, remembered that her godfather himself wore on top of his yellow frock-coat a collar of no better appearance than the wooden cloak belonging to the little man, and that the doctor often covered his own bald head with an ugly cap quite unlike all the other ugly caps in the world."

This is a good example of the difference between the versions. Minor detail and wording differences, but anything significant has been carried through both. In this instance Dumas' writing isn't even that much more simplified. So I don't really see why other sources are so insistent upon the fact that the ballet plot is taken from the Dumas-in terms of plot his and Hoffman's stories are nearly identical, and the ballet plot has definitely taken on its own characteristics which differ slightly from production to production but are, overall, universally the same.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Legends of St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas was a real man born in the third century, in what was then Greek but now part of Turkey. He was known for being exceedingly generous, giving all he had to the poor and expecting nothing in return, and is considered a saint of protecting children as well as sailors.

Over time, of course, legends have grown out of this man and I'm sure there's some truth to some of the stories about him but much has been exaggerated. You may have heard the story that is supposedly the origin of stockings-there was a poor man with three daughters and he had no money for their dowries. Because of this he would be forced to sell them into slavery, but on three occasions, a bag of gold was thrown in through the window, so his daughters were saved from slavery. One or more of these bags of gold landed in a stocking drying at the fireplace, and that's where the tradition came from (also, the balls of gold could be the origin of putting oranges in Christmas stocking, a tradition which my father had growing up but which I think has been largely lost, at least in America).

There are other lesser known stories about St. Nicholas-such as magically whisking an enslaved boy back to his parents on St. Nicholas' Day (December 6). Another story I heard in France earlier this year-we were staying very near a Cathedral dedicated to St. Nicholas, with an American who's been living in France, and she was shocked by the violence of this story, but it's really not too different from a lot of fairy tales. Anyway, three students (or children, in the French version) were murdered by an innkeeper, who hid their remains in a pickling tub. Nicholas stayed the night at the inn and dreamed the crime, and summoned the innkeeper. Nicholas prayed and brought the children back to life. I don't know what happened to the innkeeper-neither the story I was told nor this site has anything on it.

Images by Elisabeth Jvanosky and also from the link just above

Friday, December 16, 2011


Nightwish's new album, Imaginaerum, won't officially be released in the US till January, but the music video for "Storytime" can be viewsed on youtube, and the lyrics for the whole album on their website.
I've always liked that songwriter Tuomas Holopainen references both fairy tales and Disney in his songs-(contrary to what is often thought, like by the makers of the show "Once Upon a Time", Disney and fairy tales are not one and the same, but Holopainen references both often). The above song references the power of tales and stories-something I think we can all relate to here.

The album, using a creepy carnival as inpiration, seems to be an adult searching for the wonder and awe of childhood, but at the same time very mindful of that primal fear that children experience as well. And while we adults tend to think we're too intelligent to get scared of things that go bump in the night, often we're just operating under the illusion of control-life is so uncertain and precarious. Not that we should be paranoid all the time, but I'm glad the album isn't one-sided and either idealizes childhood or views life as hopeless.

The album contains many other references to fairy tales and classic fantasy characters-Alice, mermaids, etc., and also some less obvious ones-one song (I Want my Tears Back) contains the line "the voice of Mary Costa." It takes a more hardcore Disney fan to recognize this as the woman who voiced Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

I've mentioned Nightwish before, and again, their music isn't for everyone-but if dark creepy carnival-inspired symphonic metal sounds like a good idea to you, you'll probably really like this album.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Disney for the involved parent

Had a conversation with some friends today, and one of them has a professor who has a rule that his little girl is not allowed to watch Disney movies without him. He discovered that his daughter had seen Disney's Cinderella at a friend's house, and sat down to watch it with his daughter, "explaining" everything to her along the way.

For example, in the scene where the Stepmother locks Cinderella in the tower, the professor stopped the tape and said, "what are some ways Cinderella could get herself out of the tower?" and his daughter came up with several ideas (including tying bedsheets together and lowering herself out the window).

From this article by Libby Copeland:
"I suppose I could confiscate our daughter’s Disney-fied Cinderella book, but that feels like a step too far. She’s a pretty major figure, and our daughter will come across her sooner or later. I would rather take charge of this story than let someone else tell it. And when our daughter is much older, able to grasp historical context and possessed of that child's fascination with darkness, I hope she’ll read the historical versions of the tale, including the one where Cinderella chops off her stepmother’s head, and another in which Cinderella’s stepsisters chop their feet to fit them in that glass slipper. They’re all delightfully sinister—just not for a toddler’s ears."

So though the older Disney movies have become, in some ways, obsolete in today's culture, there are still ways to interact with your child and learn from them without condoning everything in them-because let's face it, there's no way you can sheild your child from Disney, even if you were to attempt such an extreme. And really, I think parents and mentors should treat more media this way, because what movie is perfect on its own, or couldn't lend itself to good discussion and bonding with your child?

Monday, December 12, 2011

December Liturgy of the Dead

Commenter Heidi shared on my recent post on storytelling at Christmastime the link to the story of the December Liturgy of the Dead. I believe this tale can also be found in Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology, but I had no idea it was still in circulation in other parts of the world. So in keeping with my own advice about balancing the warm and fuzzy holiday feelings with some chilling tales from our ancestors, here's the story for you all to enjoy:

Gladys Owen

"The story takes place in Oslo, where there lived a woman, a bit over her prime age. It was Christmas Eve and she had decided to go to church Christmas morning. During the night she woke up, her watch had stopped, so she did not know what time it was. She walked over to the window and looked toward the church. There was light in all the windows. She dressed herself, took the hymn book and went to church. It was empty in the streets and she saw noone. When she arrived the church, she sat down where she used to sit. She looked around and thought the people there looked so pale and strange. There was no one she knew, but there were many she thought she had seen before, she just did not remember quite where. When the priest arrived, he was someone she did not know, though she thought she had seen him before. He was a tall and pale man.

The priest preached beautifully, but it was quiet, and not coughing in the churchroom as she was accustomed to. It was so quiet that she almost got a little scared by it. When they began to sing, a woman, who sat next to her, bent towards her and whispered into her ear: Throw the coat loosely on your shoulders and leave this place. If you stay, this will be your end, because this is time for the dead. The wife was afraid, because when she heard her voice and looked at her, she realized that it was neighbor woman who had died long ago. She was really scared. She put on her coat, like the woman had said and left. As she walked, it was as if they grabbed her. Her legs trembled so that she thought she would fall. When she came out on the stairs, she felt how they hold her back in her coat, so she let go of the coat and she ran home as fast as she could. Back home, she collapsed of the anxiety.

Next morning, when people came to church, they found her coat on the stairs, torn apart into a thousand pieces."

Tell that one at your next Christmas party :)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Disney's BATB stained glass

"Finding a way to show how the Beast fell under the curse provoked a memorable disagreement. Howard [Ashman] envisioned the prologue as a fully animated sequence in which the audience would see a seven-year-old prince rudely refuse to give shelter to an old woman during a storm. Revealing herself to be a beautiful enchantress, the woman would chase the boy through the castle hurling bolts of magic that would turn the servants into objects. Eventually her spell would change the prince into the Beast boy, who would press his face against one of the castle windows screaming, "Come back! Come back!" "

Fortunately, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the directors, hated this idea. Why would you ever punish a seven year old with a curse that could only be broken by falling in love? The above suggestion would shift the blame for the curse away from the prince's selfishness and to the over-zealous enchantress. This curse would be completely random, as opposed to the Villeneuve version, which has a spiteful evil fairy cursing an innocent prince, or the way the Disney version turned out-a hopelessly selfish prince who needed a huge wake up call.

I like the stained glass opening-it sets up the tale in a unique but visually beautiful way.

The inscription on the bottom of the stained glass above, "vincit qui se vincit," translates as "He conquers who conquers himself."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Storytelling at Christmastime

"There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago"-so goes the lyrics to a part of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," a popular Christmas song being played on the radio and in businesses now. I had never really noticed these words before and thought of them as odd. I don't usually associate Christmas with telling ghost stories-in fact, Christmas stories are notorious fpr being especially cheesy.

But as we've seen with fairy tales, often dark and disturbing tales have, over time, been turned into cutesy, "child appropriate" stories which are hardly anything like their ancestors. A lot of things tend to go this direction-that which is truly terrifying loses its power and becomes tamed; vampires, pirates, why not Christmas traditions as well? After all, one of the most popular Christmas stories of all times, Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," features four ghosts-but we now know the happy resolution so well the ghosts don't tend to phase us much.

John Leech

Maybe this year we should tell a few scary stories to balance out the feel good holiday stories we're bound to hear as well (not that feel good holiday stories don't have their place...)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Russian links

Illustrations by A. Alexeieff for Russian Fairy Tales, 1945. More of his images can be seen here.

Here you can read a Russian version of Hansel and Gretel. Many critics think that the classic good dead mother/evil stepmother represents two projections of the same mother. This tale not only has that element, but two versions of the grandmother-the good, helpful grandmother, and the evil witch Baba Yaga. Also in this story, the children are saved by their kindness to animals who help them to complete impossible tasks and escape.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Waters of Youth, Life, and Death

In a certain kingdom lived a tsar with three sons. The tsar dreamed that beyong the thrice ninth land, in the thirtieth kingdom, was a beautiful maiden from whose hands and feet flowed rivers of youth.

The tsar's oldest son, Dmitri, volunteered to go in search of this maiden. He took with him one hundred thousand men and rode for months, asking for news of the maiden whose hands and feet produced the waters of youth. No one could help him until he finally reached an old man who knew what Dmitri wanted, but warned him he could not go there-the rivers that led to the kingdom with the maiden were to be crossed with ferries, and those who drove the ferries would demand first his right hand, then his left foot, and then his head. Discouraged, the prince returned home and claimed he had heard nothing of the maiden.

The second son, Vassili, went on the same search-taking again one hundred thousand men, he came to Baba-Yaga's hut. Baba-Yaga gave him the same information as the old man had given his brother, and he too left for home, unwilling to part with his limbs and head.
"Baba Yaga" by Ivan Bilibin

The youngest son was Ivan. He went on the same journey, but took with him only his good steed and sword. He found Baba-Yaga's hut and was again told of the ferrymen who would take his hand, foot, and head, but Ivan said "one head is not much," and ventured forth. He came to the first ferry and rode across the river. When the ferrymen demanded his hand, Ivan replied, "oh, I want that for myself!", struck the ferrymen down with his sword, and crossing the other rivers in the same way.

Ivan came across a giant who threatened him, and realizing he could not defeat the giant, took a different way through the forest, and came across a woman who gave him
magic herbs and a ball. The herbs caused the giant to sleep and the ball led Ivan to the Princess. The woman told him that the Princess would ride out with her maidens to green meadows to amuse herself for nine days, then return home and sleep the hero's sleep for nine days and nights.

Ivan found everything as the old woman had told him, and the Princess was so beautiful he could not take his eyes off of her. When the Princess and her maidens fell into the nine days' hero's sleep, he took a flask of her healing water and left. When the Princess awoke, she was furious and came after Ivan. When she overtook him, she struck him with her sword in the chest. But as the maiden looked on him, pity seized her, and she placed her hand on his wound, and the healing water closed the wound and Ivan was revived. The maiden asked for him to take her as a wife, to which he agreed, and sent him home for three years.

However, when Ivan returned home, his brothers stole the healing water, drugged him, and threw him in a pit. When Ivan revived, he made his way to an underground kingdom. He saw some young unprotected birds and sheltered them-in thanks, their mother offered to do anything for Ivan, and he asked that she bear him to the upper world. When Ivan finally returned home, his father believed the lies that his brothers had told him and exiled Ivan, who had to wait for the three years to pass.

Finally his princess returned and demanded that the man who stole the water be sent to her. Dmitri came first, and the Princess' children were waiting with her. "Is that our father?" they asked.
"No, that is your uncle."
"How shall we meet him?"
"Take each one a whip and flog him back home."
The same fate met Vassily when he came out, but when Ivan was summoned, the Princess told her sons to go meet their father and lead him to her, and there was much kissing and embracing. The tsar drove his eldest sons from the castle and lived with Ivan and his family.

*This is a Russian folktale. I was expecting there to be water of death because of the title, but I guess it makes you realize that even the waters of youth could not help the evil brothers when justice caught up to them.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Numbers and the Twelve Dancing Princesses

Anne Anderson

On the Surlalune Annotate Twelve Dancing Princesses page, you can read the Grimms' notes from the versions they heard and used to create their own version. These tales are definitely different than the one we're familiar with-for example, either three sisters who wear out their shoes verses twelve, or one princess who wears out twelve pairs of shoes. Clearly numbers are a significant thing in folklore, but even from the above example you can see numbers seem to be especially prominent in this story's versions, particularly 3 and 12-sometimes you'll see 11 or 13, but these numbers are really meant to be one more or one less than the complete 12. Click through to read the older versions and see more instances of 3s and 12s.

From Heidi Anne Heiner's annotations:
"Three days and nights: The number and/or pattern of three often appears in fairy tales to provide rhythm and suspense. The pattern adds drama and suspense while making the story easy to remember and follow. The third event often signals a change and/or ending for the listener/reader. A third time also disallows coincidence such as two repetitive events would suggest.

The reasons and theories behind three's popularity are numerous and diverse. The number has been considered powerful across history in different cultures and religions, but not all of them. Christians have the Trinity, the Chinese have the Great Triad (man, heaven, earth), and the Buddhists have the Triple Jewel (Buddha, Dharma, Sanga). The Greeks had the Three Fates. Pythagoras considered three to be the perfect number because it represented everything: the beginning, middle, and end. Some cultures have different powerful numbers, often favoring seven, four and twelve. "

Elenore Abbott

I think I'd have to rank Twelve Dancing Princesses as my second favorite fairy tale, the first being Beauty and the Beast. The secret kingdom and the dancing are definitely elements I love, but I think a more subtle factor may be the ambiguity. Normally, good and evil are very black and white in fairy tales, which I don't necessarily dislike, it's an element of the genre. But the nature of the curse is unclear-if no one were beheaded because of it, would it even be a curse? To quote from Heidi Anne Heiner again: "The callousness displayed by the princesses is often troubling to many critics and readers. Are the princesses really that cruel or are they under an enchantment? The answer is left for your own interpretation"

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Wolves Within

Two Wolves
A Cherokee Legend

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Text from here, image from here

The Enchanted Lake

Liadov-"The Enchanted Lake-Fairy Tale Picture", Opus 62,

From this site:
"The composer referred to The Enchanted Lake (1908) as a "fable-tableau," and it was his favorite among his compositions: "How picturesque it is," he wrote to a friend, "how clear, the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep. But above all no entreaties and no complaints [which he associates with the sounds of trumpets and trombones, which are banished]; only nature -- cold, malevolent, and fantastic as a fairy tale. One has to feel the change of the colors, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility."

The piece is indeed a marvel of mystical serenity, the waters gently stirring under starry skies, in suggestively shifting major and minor thirds and ninth chords supported by deep pedal points, with the "enchanted" sounds of harp and celesta, and delicate flute traceries (all in the Rimsky manner)."

Friday, November 18, 2011

History of the Arabian Nights

In my library there are several books on the brothers Grimm but none exclusively on the history of the Arabian Nights. The following information is taken from the chapter "The Splendor of the Arabian Nights" from Jack Zipes' When Dreams Come True: Classic Fairy Tales and their Tradition.

The Arabian Nights is more unique than just another culture's collection of folktales because of its framework story: that of Scheherezade heroically saving her own life and that of countless other women by telling stories to Shahryar, the king who was so incensed by the adultery of his first wife that he took to marrying and killing a different woman each night. This framework story was modeled after a Persian book called Hazar Afsaneh, or "A Thousand Tales", translated into Arabic in the ninth century.

The individual tales themselves differ from collection to collection. The tales as we know them today are mainly taken from Persian tenth century tales with some Indian elements, tenth century tales recorded in Baghdad, and Egyptian stories written down between the tenth and twelfth centuries. But, similar to other collections of fairy tales around the world, these were probably circulated orally for hundreds of years before being written down, and afterwards have become an important influence in Western stories. The Arabian Nights were translated into French by Antoine Galland between 1704 and 1717, whose literary talents made the tales popular and eventually were translated into multiple languages, with the most famous English translation by Richard Burton (who plagarized a lot from an earlier English translation by John Payne).

Due to the Scheherezade story, the tales have clear purposes-firstly, for Scheherezade to educate and recivilize Shahryar and show him that he can regain his trust in women. Secondly, Scheherezade's sister Dunazade is also an audience member, so the tales are Scheherezade's passing down of advice to her younger sister and enabling her to navigate through society. The readers themselves are the third audience, who become educated alongside Shahryar and Dunazade into values of the time and culture-justice, the importance of creativity and wit, and most of all, empowering the oppressed.

The power of story itself cannot be ignored either-through the ultimate happy ending that Scheherezade's determination brings about, as well as four other major tales that employ the same motif of people telling stories to save innocent lives. As an obvious lover of stories myself, that's the most intriguing part of the Arabian Nights to me.

I found this passage fascinating, as it's something I had wondered about myself: "Given the patriarchal nature of Arabic culture, it would seem strange that Scheherezade assumed the key role in the Nights. Yet, a woman exercised more power in Moslem culture during the Middle Ages in Baghdad and Cairo than is commonly known," including ultimate power over children and slaves, including children's educations, marriage, profession, and sexual initiation.

Interestingly, the title was originally One Thousand Nights, and no one knows how it became The Thousand and One Nights. Zipes speculates that it had something to do with the fact that odd numbers were considered lucky in Arabic culture. I personally find the perfectly even "one thousand" to be a little too practical, while "the thousand and one" adds a touch of whimsy and almost a hint of the eternal, as if no matter what the number, there's always one more to be heard the next night...(there are not literally one thousand tales in the collection. There are 42 "core" tales in Galland's translation, but apparantly the complete collection of Payne's collection included nine volumes).

Illustrations by Virginia Frances Sterret

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Definitely like Grimm better than Once Upon a Time. The trailer gives you a good feel for the first episode-but especially in light of my post on the cultural misuse/misunderstanding of the phrase "fairy tale," I find this line very ironic: "This isn't a fairy tale. The stories are all true." Umm...don't you therefore mean, "this is a fairy tale, but maybe you need to readjust your thinking about them"?

It seems that every episode will feature a different fairy tale-it's fun to guess what the next one is. Confession: I had never read the Grimm tale "The Queen Bee" (or even heard about it) until tonight when I watched episode three. But it was kind of fun-much like the main character, I got out my ancient family tome (or, the Barnes and Noble edition I have of the Complete Grimm Fairy Tales) to search through and research what I was witnessing. And I'm glad they didn't just stick to well-known fairy tales-I enjoy learning new tales. Although I'm doubting the source of inspiration, since this time the storyline has nothing to do with the fairy tale -but according to Yahoo answers, no one else has a better answer...
But it just occured to me-the inspiration for the second episode was Goldilocks, which was NOT a Grimm fairy tale. (Read more on Goldilocks here).
But, for anyone who's curious, the tale "The Queen Bee" is an animal helper tale-the kind where the hero shows compassion on various animals and later they help him accomplish a series of impossible tasks. In this case, an anthill helped him find one thousand pearls, some ducks retrieved a key from the bottom of a lake, and the queen bee of a hive he saved sniffed honey off the breath of the youngest princess, enabling him to marry her. Full text can be read here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Photographing Fairies and the Cottingley Fairy Hoax

I found a couple of faerie-related books at a library book sale I had never heard of before.

The first was Photographing Fairies by Steve Szilagyi...which I also just found out has been made into a movie, which seems to have pretty good reviews.

The novel's inside flap promises to take the reader back in time to the 1920s and see the story of the Cottingley Fairies through the eyes of a young photographer. Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle figures in as a character- he was a believer in the photographs himself, and I like historical fiction that blends as much fact as possible in.

I assumed the novel would prove to us that the Cottingly Fairy hoax was actually true, and it was proved by this photographer, which seemed interesting enough, but the book actually skims over the Cottingley Fairies and concentrates on a competitive (fictional) set of photographs, which also happened to involve two girls in a garden. But I'm glad that the premise of the book was not to make the hoax true-although the pictures are pretty impressive considering that the fairies were drawn by a 16-year old and 10-year old girl, I agree with Szilagyi's assessment of them: "Your pictures are crude concoctions pandering to the popular idea of what a fairy is supposed to look like. Look, this fairy here is wearing a gown. Where did she get that? Are there fairy dress shops? Are there fairy mills where they weave the fabric? And who works in the mills and dress shops?...what I do know is that if there are fairies, they don't look like popular illustrations. They'll look how they look. Not how we want them to look."

Cottingley Fairy Photographs

The novel was entertaining but I especially enjoyed Szilagyi's interesting ideas on what a separate race of people could be and the implications of discovering such a thing. The fairies as we see them in the book are still diminuitive and we don't ever discover if they are a complex, powerful group of beings such as in true fairie lore or a simple-minded, cute garden adornment hardly any different than butterflies (or the Tinker Bell fairy of the popular imagination). At least Szilagyi leaves you to ponder the possibilities yourself.

I also really enjoyed this passage, from when the main character, Castle, is still unsure as to if the fairies actually exist or not and another character gets stung by a bee: "Templeton's sting was a rebuke from nature. While we search the garden for tiny, imaginary versions of ourselves, we miss entirely the more fantastic creatures that crowd there, more mysterious and impenetrable than any parallel universe of floating fays."

Interestingly, the year the movie for this book came out was the same year Fairy Tale: A True Story came out, a movie about the Cottingley Fairies, represented as a true story. My mom rented that movie for me once when I was sick and even being younger, I resented them misusing the phrase "True story", for I knew it wasn't true although I knew none of the details at that point. The story was "true" in that there really was an incident, but not in the sense that the fairies were real as the movie portrayed. However, for those who still want to believe, this is the final photograph that Frances insisted was genuine, even though Elsie claimed it was also a fake.

This interesting quote came from Frances at the end of her life: "I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can't understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Edmund Dulac eye candy

It's more difficult to find online information on fairy tale illustrators than authors. Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) is one of the most well known fairy tale illustrators, for good reason. Was he personally drawn to the source material, or did his style just happen to suit it well and he complied with commissions? It's hard to believe from these gorgeous images that he wasn't at least a little inspired by the stories. He started his career illustrating some other favorite literature of mine, Jane Eyre and Edgar Allen Poe poems. Later in his life he even designed banknotes and stamps for France.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Take on ABC's Once Upon a Time

There's only two episodes of Once Upon a Time up so far but I'm not too into it. The premise itself could be really interesting: regular people who are secretly fairy tale characters. I've been intrigued with this concept of fairy tales being somehow true-as accounts of past true tales, or prophecies of things to come, are themes I play around with in my own stories. I'm glad to see that in this age where fairy tales are usually either parodied or twisted, there is this increasingly popular approach to fairy tales that holds, it seems, a little more respect for the old stories.

However, it disappointed me that the tv show's idea of a storybook character is to reference aspect of stories which are exclusively Disney-Jiminy Cricket, Maleficent, a guy in jail whistling "Whistle While You Work..." makes me wonder if they did any research beyond watching Disney classics.

The script is kind of cheesy. The good characters are sort of bland and the bad characters not that evil-the only character I find interesting is Rumplestiltskin. This supposedly dark, evil curse that even the other witch is afraid of make Snow White become a teacher in a cute American town. That' life and I think it's pretty great. All that talk about taking away everyone's happiness and all they hold dear-what is that, exactly? The most shallow idea of "happily ever after" that implies that nothing ever goes wrong again? That's all they really lost. Okay, and their memory of their past life. But still, not a very evil plot-making them live normal lives-compared to the history of villainous deeds the classic tales feature.

The beginning seemed a little too much like Enchanted for me-I couldn't take it seriously. The whole sending them to a place where "there are no happily ever afters" which turns out to be our world, and then the constant obvious offering of poisoned apples to the protagonist...and I love Enchanted, but that's a parody for kids, and this was, I thought, supposed to be a more serious exploration of fairy tale characters for adults.

Update-I wrote the above before finishing the second episode. I like the element where the Wicked Queen has to kill the heart of the thing she loves the most-an interesting twist on her ordering the heart of Snow White and adds depth and backstory to her character. I do plan on watching more episodes, and maybe my opinion will shift.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trees and folklore?

Reader Radha Pandey is doing a project on trees in folklore, myths, and legend, and we've started a discussion in the comments to my post on Juniper Tree, but I wanted to make you all aware of it so we could have more input. So far we've thought of, obviously, the Juniper Tree, as well as Cinderella variants where the tree is a way for Cinderella to communicate with her dead mother and receive gifts from her.

Also, I'm very glad that reader Dawn alerted me to the Grimm tale One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes because of my interest in beauty standards and society's treatment of people who don't measure up to them. In this tale, which is similar to Cinderella, the stepsisters have one and three eyes, respectively, and mistreat their sister who has two eyes "like regular people." Though it's unusual that Two-eyes is mistreated because she is normal, those who are different are still represented as evil, for ugliness and evil go hand in hand in so many tales. (Two-Eyes, of course, just happens to have great beauty.) But the tree is very significant in this tale as well, for after Two-Eyes' animal helper, a goat, has been killed by her mother, from the entrails springs a magical tree with golden apples. The tree is also the means by which Two-Eyes is made known to a knight that passes by, for the tree will only allow her to pluck fruit from its branches.

In both of these tales the tree is a means of preserving someone's spirit after they've died, and a way of giving help and gifts to the living.

In the Firebird, there is another tree with golden apples, which the Firebird steals. Ivan's catching of the Firebird in the garden kickstarts his adventures.

What else is out there? I may know a little about folklore but virtually nothing about myth and legend.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Godfather Death

There once lived a very poor man with twelve children who had to work all day and night to feed them. When a thirteenth child was born, he desperately went out into the road to find a godfather. First he came across the Lord, who promised to take care of the child, but the man refused, because of the way the Lord gave to the rich and let the poor go hungry. The man came across the devil, but the man refused him as well because he deceives people and leads them astray. Lastly he came to Death, and the man accepted his offer because Death made no distinction between the rich and the poor.

Death followed through on his promise and gave his godson a gift-he would become a famous physician with the ability to tell if a patient would survive or not. If Death was standing by the head of the bed of the patient, the physician would be able to cure him with an herb that Death gave him-if Death stood by the foot of the bed, the patient would die. With this advantage, the physician became famous and rich.

But one day the physician was called to look in on the King, who was sick, and when he got there, he saw Death at the foot of the bed. Though he knew he would be risking Death's displeasure, the physician turned the bed so that Death was at the head and administered the healing herb. Death was upset and warned his godson he wouldn't be able to get away with any trickery again.

Ludwig Richter

Not long afterwards, the King's daughter fell ill, and the King proclaimed that if anyone could save her, he should marry her and inherit the crown. The physician was so dazzled by her beauty and the prospect of being a King that he ignored his godfather and turned the bed again, giving her the herb. But this time Death was so furious that he took the physician by the hand and down to a cavern filled with flickering candles of all sizes. Death explained that each human life had a candle, and as soon as the candle flickered out, their life was over. Death showed the physician his candle, which was just about to go out. The physician begged to be allowed to live and marry the princess, but Death could not light a new candle without snuffing out another one. Death pretended he was getting a new candle for his godson, but deliberately put the candle out because he wanted his revenge, and the physician fell down and his life was ended.

This morbid tale taps into two things that all people struggle with at some point, no matter what your faith-the unfairness and cruelty of the world, and the inevitability of death. Naturally it would have been completely controversial in Victorian times to accuse God of being unfair, so the Grimms threw in a little narration to save themselves: "The man said that because he did not know how wisely God distributes wealth and poverty." Even though I'm a Christian, I don't like this little addendum of theirs-it sounds like the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. And poverty for this man wasn't just that he had to wait a while before getting the newest version of the Iphone-it meant real hunger and deprivation, and watching his children suffer as well.

But I don't see Death as being all that much fairer. Yes, death comes to all, but death comes to some who are young and some who are old, and some suffer in death and some go peacefully. In this tale, even though Death supposedly makes no distinction between wealth and poverty, he gives his godson a gift that allows him to be rich and successful, and has mercy on him after his first offense.

I find it interesting that so many cultures personified Death as a character. Sometimes this is done more humorously, as in Family Guy where Death is just a regular guy doing his job and trying to get a girl. But aside from parodies, stories that feature Death generally all point to the same conclusion-no one can escape or cheat death. The trickery that the physician tries probably would have been rewarded in some fairy tales, but here it proves to be his downfall. And the cavern full of flickering candles is so haunting-it reminds me of one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, "The Scythe," where a man is unwillingly made to be, essentially, Death, cutting down stalks of wheat which are each people's lives-and he, like the physician in this tale, discovers that he can't cheat the system or save the lives of people he loves.
Sorry to end on such a downer-hope you all have a magically wicked Halloween weekend!

Monday, October 24, 2011

In the Hall of the Mountain King

The Woman in Green: Besides those rags you have other clothing?
Peer Gynt: Ah, you should see my Sunday garments!
WIG: My week-day garments are gold and silver.
PG: It looks to me more like tow and grasses.
WIM: Yes. There's just one thing to remember:
We mountain folk have an ancient custom;
All that we have has a double shape.
So when you come to my father's palace
It would not be in the least surprising
If you were inclined to think it merely
A heap of ugly stones and rubbish.
PG: That's just the same as it is with us!
You may think our gold all rust and mildew,
And mistake each glittering window-pane
For a bundle of worn-out clouts and stockings.
WIG: Black looks like white, and ugly like fair.
PG: Big looks like little, and filthy like clean.
WIG: Oh, Peer, I see we are splendidly suited!

This passage is from Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt," which is (loosely) based on Norwegian folklore. It strikes me for multiple reasons-the characters here are lying but it's a common aspect of Faerie lore that the enchanted person may see a beautiful palace full of riches, which in reality is a shack full of rags and broken utensils, or something to that affect. Yet, if there are two possible ways of perceiving, who's to say which version of the Faerie world is real? Even when the literal facts don't change, sometimes all it takes is a little imagination and contentment to make a situation enchanting for one person but miserable for another. The aspect of not judging by initial appearances of course brings to mind Beauty and the Beast, but the element of deception also has similarities to the Emperor's New Clothes.

After this part of the play, Peer goes to the Hall of the Mountain King to marry his new bride (the Woman in Green is really the Troll King's daughter), but is turned upon by the Trolls when he isn't willing to have his eyes gauged out so that she will seem beautiful to him. Don't feel too sorry for Peer though-he only wanted to marry her because he heard she was rich. Hence this very famous classical piece, which I bet you've heard even if you're not into classical music. Below is a metal version by Apocalyptica.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My favorite dark retellings of fairy tales

...All happen to be collections of short stories. When I first discovered these, in my ignorance, I called this subgenre "dark, twisted fairy tales," which I guess are really "antitales," but my term gets the point across anyway.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How children played butcher with each other

The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Maria Tatar has an Adult Tales section in the back, which is intruiguing, especially considering that morbid tales such as The Robber Bridegroom, Fitcher's Bird, and the Juniper Tree are in the regular section. The tales in the adult section aren't necessarily more violent than the above tales, but either racist ("The Jew in the Brambles") or violent in such a way that is condoned because it's a cautionary tale, but such that goes to extremes.

This was actually quite typical for Victorian children's stories, as can be evidenced by Struwwelpeter-a collection of German tales featuring children who suffer drastically for their mistakes, including: a girl who plays with matches and is burned to death, a boy whose thumb sucking results in his thumbs being cut off by giant scissors, a boy who goes outside during the storm and is carried off by the wind, "presumably to his doom" get the idea. Struwwelpeter himself is the cautionary tale about the importance of good grooming, the consequences of which are pretty severe, according to this picture on the left.

So maybe it's not just the violence that makes this tale disturbing, but the matter of fact way it's told:

"A man once slaughtered a pig while his children were looking on. When they started playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other: "You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher," whereupon he took an open blade and thrust it into his brother's neck. Their mother, who was upstairs in a room bathing the youngest child in a tub, heard the cries of her other child, quickly ran downstairs, and when she saw what had happened, drew the knife out of the child's neck, and in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the child who had been the butcher. She then rushed back to the house to see what her other child was doing in the tub, but in the meantime it had drowned in the bath. The woman was so horrified that she fell into a state of utter despair, refused to be consoled by the servants, and hanged herself. When her husband returned home from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that he died shortly thereafter."

According to Tatar's notes, the Grimms got complaints that this tale was violent and defended it because of its valuable lesson, Wilhelm saying, "My mother used to tell the story about the butchering when I was young, and it made me careful and apprehensive about child's play." Despite this reasoning, the tale didn't make it to later editions of Children and Household Tales.

I have lots of experience watching children play, and I think they have a pretty good sense that their play is not real, and they use imagination and not literal imitations even when copying adult behavior. Yet the concept of the potential for children to be cruel to each other mixed with their ignorance does make this a chilling tale that could possibly be made into a horror film...I'd watch that, if it was made well.

There is another version of this tale also found in Grimms that reads more like a news story-more specific, including the town name and ages of the children, and at the end the child in question is asked to choose between an apple and a coin, and as he chooses an apple, he is deemed innocent. It seems almost more upsetting to let the child get off scot free for murder simply because he didn't know any better. This article by Donald Haase has an interesting interpretation I hadn't considered-some fairy tales were not meant for children but may express adults' fears about parenting and raising children. The choice of apple verses coin represents the division between concrete and abstract thinking-something I understand as a teacher of students with developtmental disabilities who, in general, never go on to abstract thinking. The article discusses other aspects of this tale and is very interesting reading, so I recommend clicking through.